An evening of comedy and tragedy leads to a fitting legacy


On 25 October last year, the campaigning group Women in Journalism (of which I am deputy chair) held its first-ever charity comedy evening at a theatre in Leicester Square.

The event – raising money for Z2K – was a great success, not least thanks to our compere, the incomparable with Sandi Toksvig. The only slight hitch was the late arrival of one WiJ committee member, Nathalie McDermott, who had planned to arrive in time to film video clips of the performers before they went on stage.

Sonia Burgess

Sonia Burgess: around 500 people, including leading lawyers, attended funeral

Nathalie had been held up at Kings Cross tube station because of a passenger under a train. Such incidents – which are mercifully rare – tend to be regarded by commuters as unfortunate, rather than remarkable, but what made this one particularly distressing, was that Nathalie had seen the woman fall on to the track. (In true ‘show-must-go-on’ fashion, Nathalie had found another route to the theatre and still managed to make her video blogs.)

I kept in touch with Nathalie over the next few days, as she was understandably shaken by what she’d witnessed – all the more so, when reports emerged that the victim hadn’t fallen accidentally, but had been pushed by a female companion (Nathalie had not seen the build up to the incident; only the fall itself). A murder charge was expected to follow.

The victim was identified as a transgender woman, Sonia Burgess. A little later, it emerged that Sonia was also David Burgess, probably the finest asylum solicitor of his generation – and, by remarkable coincidence, someone I had known well.

David had been one of my first and best contacts when I first started out as a legal affairs journalist in the late 1980s. His groundbreaking work was to be instrumental in developing asylum law as a distinct legal specialism, winning recognition for the special plight of refugees. (In one typically audacious move, he had the then Home Secretary held in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order to stop a deportation.) Lawyers can be a competitive, critical lot – with those among their number blazing too many trails as likely to attract snarky comments as admiration – but you would have to go a long way to find anyone who would say anything negative about David. As one colleague put it when David announced he was bowing out from legal practice in 2003: ‘He was the lawyer we all wanted to be.’

In recent years, David had spent more and more time in his female persona and those close to him believe he was moving towards living as Sonia full time. However, at the time of his death, he still retained his male identity in his professional life (he had returned to legal work in the last couple of years). At Sonia’s funeral, attended by around 500 people, those (like me) who had only known David – former clients, lawyers and other professional colleagues – rubbed shoulders quite happily with family and those who had only known Sonia – friends (some transgender, some not), and other active members of Sonia’s church.

The calm and poignant way that Sonia’s life – in all its complexity and brilliance – was marked at the funeral was in stark contrast to the media’s prurient and salacious coverage of her death. (‘Tube death man was a lawyer called Sonia’; ‘Sex swap lawyer’s escort ad’.)

When it emerged that the woman who allegedly pushed Sonia was also transgender, the tabloids thought all their Christmases had come at once. Under the headline: ‘”Woman” accused of transgender Tube murder is actually a MAN undergoing a sex change,’ the Daily Mail reported gleefully that the accused, 34-year-old Nina Kanagasingham, appeared in court ‘unshaven’, and had been remanded to a men’s prison.

For both Nathalie and me, the episode was something of a paradigm shift: previously, the way our industry traduces transgender people had not been an issue we were particularly aware of, or – to be frank – much bothered about. However, the reductive and hurtful way that Sonia’s life and tragic death was being reported gave us pause.

Nathalie’s response was to contact Trans Media Watch – the body which monitors the way trans people are portrayed in the media and seeks to educate and inform journalists – and offer her services. (Nathalie runs On Road Media, providing training to charities and other groups on using new media to get their message across.) She has been working with TMW since January, to help trans people use social media more effectively to challenge media stereotyping and inform public opinion on the web.

Another consequence of Nathalie’s contact with the group, is that Women in Journalism is proud to have just become the second organisation (after Channel 4) to agree to sign TMW’s new Memorandum of Understanding, which seeks to improve the way trans people are treated in the media.

I like to think that Sonia – and David – would have approved.

It’s not just would-be bombers who tar lawyers with same brush as controversial clients

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Among those associated with Celtic football club who were sent parcel bombs last month was Paul McBride QC, a leading Scottish criminal lawyer, based in Edinburgh.

Saimo Chahal coverage

Civil liberties lawyer Saimo Chahal was 'monstered' by tabloid press for acting for Yorkshire Ripper

McBride – who is known as a robust advocate – is a Celtic supporter but it seems that he may have been targeted with an explosive device by a loyalist organisation because he represented club manager Nigel Lennon at his recent ill-tempered Scottish FA disciplinary hearing.

Other recipients of the bombs – none of which exploded, mercifully – included Lennon himself, plus a former Labour MSP, and a republican group based in Glasgow.

It is perhaps not surprising that anyone deranged enough to send bombs through the public postal system might fail to understand the notion that an advocate should be seen as distinct from the causes he espouses professionally – however, passionately. But the Celtic case is by no means the first time that the crucial lines that mark the professional distance between lawyer and client have been blurred – sometimes by those who really should know better and with potentially deadly results.

In 1989, Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane died after being shot 14 times by loyalist paramilitaries as he sat down to dinner with his wife and three children. Finucane was a respected civil liberties solicitor who came from a staunchly Republican family. He had successfully challenged the British government in a number of important human rights cases and his murder came less than a month after Home Office minister Douglas Hogg complained that some Northern Ireland solicitors were ‘unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA’ – comments which were widely construed as referring to Finucane. Hogg’s comments appeared to ignore the fact that Finucane had also acted for a number of loyalist clients.

With remarkable prescience, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon’s immediate response to Hogg’s remarks was to warn that over-associating lawyers with their clients would put lives at risk. ‘I have no doubt there are lawyers walking the streets of the north of Ireland who have become targets for assassins’ bullets as result of the statement that has been made tonight,’ he said.

More recently, Saimo Chahal, civil liberties partner at Bindmans, was soundly monstered by the tabloids for having the temerity to act for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire ripper, in his attempts to fix a possible release date tariff.  The level of vitriol (and misogyny) directed at Chahal for doing her job was unprecedented.

‘How could a WOMAN fight to win freedom for The Ripper?,’ thundered a five-deck headline in The Sun. ‘The Yorkshire Ripper is demanding to be freed, claiming his human rights have been infringed,’ it reported. Readers would be left ‘astonished a FEMALE lawyer is leading his fight.’

Many of the attacks were highly personal, singling out Chahal as the mother of a teenage daughter, and her photo was published alongside that of Sutcliffe and his 13 women victims (in the Daily Mail, her picture was four times the size of Sutcliffe’s). Probably most despicably, the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn suggested Chahal might be motivated, not by professionalism or the desire to establish human rights principles, but because she had a crush on Sutcliffe. Littlejohn likened her to ‘one of those madwomen who start writing to serial killers’ and end up marrying them. (Interestingly, the male barrister in the case, Paul Bowen, did not warrant a mention in any of the coverage.)

The response to the coverage was predictable enough, with Chahal receiving hate mail and threats from as far away as Australia.  As any good lawyer would, Chahal responded by insisting she would not be deterred from acting for other controversial clients (and her record since certainly suggests she has been as good as her word). However, other lawyers warned at the time that this kind of unprecedented media attack on a lawyer could only be insidious – particularly for those who don’t have the added buffer that comes with working at a large and well known law firm.

Imran Khan, who specialises in defending terrorism suspects, warned that the fear of a tabloid mauling could make lawyers reluctant to take on unpopular cases. Khan made his name acting for the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, but has always been entirely clear that, in different circumstances, he could equally have ended up defending someone charged with Stephen’s killing.

An adversarial justice system depends upon lawyers being prepared to act to the absolute best of their ability for even the most loathsome of individuals – and the distinction between the lawyer and their client they represent should never be forgotten or misunderstood.

You wouldn’t expect a would-be bomber to care about such things, but the media and our political leaders certainly ought to – and should be sure to choose their words carefully in such instances.